Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

[Left Coast] Inaugural playtest. Talking dog. Assumptions challenged.

Started by hix, September 18, 2009, 10:55:23 PM

Previous topic - Next topic


Back in 2005, I wrote a game called Left Coast, where you play science-fiction authors in 1970s California who are all struggling to write novels and hide your growing insanities from your families. It's a quirky, funny setting with a very clear target audience - and until last Sunday no-one had ever played it.

(You can find a previous thread where Ron gave me some feedback on Left Coast, here.)

What this four-years-with-no-playtesting meant is that I had an idealised version of the game in my head. I was pretty confident I knew what sort of stuff would happen, what sort of fun would be had, and what problems would emerge. I was making a lot of assumptions, and the process on playing and testing Left Coast on Sunday was really a process of challenging those assumptions.

I thought that setting creation would be fun and easy, and that through the characters would wander around and hanging out, conflicts would naturally emerge. What really happened was that setting creation (which involves brainstorming a sprawling relationship map) was fun but slow, and when we started to play, it wasn't at all clear what should happen in a scene. Additionally, I became disturbed that:

+ the game lacked subtext
+ there was no process for turning the stuff in the setting's relationship map into scenes
+ there was no sense of what the characters should do.

In this post, I'm going to briefly describe the characters and setting Simon C and Malcolm Craig created, and give an even briefer description of the two scenes we played through. After that, there's a short list of the huge issues that this playtest threw up for me. I'm hoping that Simon and Malc will join in with their thoughts on the playtest, so I can see it from their point of view.

In other words, I don't have a clear 'goal' for this playtest report yet. What I'd like to do is gather some impressions and mull the experience over. (Also: I'm not actively working on Left Coast yet. My current aim is to finish Bad Family by the end of the year and then start thinking about what's next. The opportunity to play Left Coast is an important part of that.)

Characters and Setting

Characters in Left Coast are defined by the type of author they are, their first or middle initial, a significant relationship, and a goal. Malcolm created K. Joshua Fresnel, a Jewish right-wing idealogue whose dog 'Benito' talks to him. Fresnel's goal was to find someone to put on 'Traktofaktori!', the musical satire of communism that he wrote while locked up in a psychiatric facility.

Simon came up with Richard H. Long, a hack and a pervert (think: your worst sterotyped assumptions about the author of the Gor novels) whose most significant relationship is with his feminist daughter. Long's goal was to find a publisher for his serious novel, 'The Wandering Years'.

Setting design consists of brainstorming elements to do with Family, Money, Nuttiness, and Alien activity. This was a fun but problematic stage of the game, but we came up with elements such as Behind (an alternate reality), Karl Hickenlooper (editor of 'Stories from Beyond'), Rabbi Schlomo Troutmann (who Fresnel owes money to), and Richard Nixon.


We played out two scenes - one for each author. I was disappointed in myself (as GM) during both of them. Primarily because the game doesn't provide a way to turn all of this interesting setting material that the players are excited by into scenes.

However, there were also problems in:

+ identifying conflicts (and whether conflicts, in fact, need to exist)
+ what to roll when the conflict doesn't fit into one of the existing arenas (Family, Money, Nuttiness, and Alien), and
+ taking a 'Californian' approach to scene selection - leaving what dice to roll undefined until the conflict is clarified.

I'll let Malcolm and Simon talk about the specifics of what happened in their scenes if they want to. The short version is that both scenes were supposed to be about the author taking a step towards their goal only to have someone interfere with that. As a GM, I felt I was being pretty clumsy about introducing an obstacle/NPC into the scene, and that things felt increasingly adrift as the scenes went on.

The Big List

I took notes throughout the playtest, and afterwards the three of us spent quite a bit of time debriefing. I tried to identify some of the fundamental issues that I'm going to need to address if this game is going to end up working. I've ordered these so that the issues I think are most important come first ...

    1. What is Left Coast about? What's its subtext?
    The major thing that threw me during the game happened while Simon very reasonably started to explore what the first conflict in the first scene was actually about. We were talking about whether there was stakes-setting in this game, the free-and-clear phase in Sorceror, and IIEE. And all of a sudden, Simon asked, "What is this game about?" Which completely threw me - it's a question I don't have an answer to; it's a question I've usually needed to play a game a couple of times before I start having an answer to it.

Related to this was that in the two scenes we played, the game lacked subtext. There was no story going on underneath the events we were playing out; there were no NPCs with hidden motivations; there were no conflicts or agendas pushing back against what the authors wanted; and there was no sense of significance or resonance to the events we were playing. That felt like a problem to me; the game felt hollow.

    2. What's the situation? What do the characters do?
    Left Coast seems to be a game with a strong idea of who the characters are and a clear setting (in fact, I felt all three of us were a little bit in love with the setting - I certainly am). The game just lacks a situation that combines the characters and the setting together.

When Simon and Malcolm pressed me on what the characters do, I thought about it for a while and then said, "They try to form meaningful relationships." I'm not sure if that's 100% right; I need to think on it more.

    3. Why do you have conflicts?
    The main reason I pushed for conflicts was that they are the way of introducing more stuff into the setting. They're also a way for the PCs to advance towards their ratings.

But that's not an answer to the question of 'Why do you have conflicts?' There's got to be more than just me as a GM putting obstacles in front of the characters so we can roll some dice and either add some shit to a chart or get mechanically closer to our goal, doesn't it?

I'm also now unsure about when you have conflicts and what they resolve.

    4. How can I make it easier to GM Left Coast?
    Specifically, how do I create a process for turning the "piece of paper with all the setting elements written on it" into scenes and conflicts?

    5. How can I make setting creation flow smoother?
    It needs to be more fun. It needs to be faster. This was probably the area of the game we discussed the most, and had the most ideas about. Starting points to explore include:

    + reducing the number of facts each player has to create
    + introducing elements via playing out scenes with them
    + using Apocalypse World's technique of 'walking around the setting' during the first session, just to set everything up.

    6. Should I amalgamate the Nuttiness and Alien ratings?
    These two ratings felt like they covered similar terrain - imaginative, weird stuff in the setting. In addition, 'Alien' is supposed to be about abductions, UFOs, government conspiracies, invasions, etc. When we were playing, it felt like that was locking down the subject matter of the game too much; as the person who'd written the game, I'd pre-decided what the weird elements of the setting where going to be - and that didn't interest me when we sat down to play it.

That's it for the moment. I welcome Simon and Malc's thoughts, and ask questions if you've got them. Overall, I think the game is definitely a strong contender for being fun, but it's going to need a lot of thinking in order to draw that fun out consistently.

If you're interested in looking at the 24 Hour RPG draft I wrote for the Ronnies, it's here.

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs

Malcolm Craig

First off, I'd like to say how much I enjoyed Left Coast. I immediately became engaged with the ideas behind it. The concept of playing a demented Californian SF author proved to be very attractive.

One thing which seemed to hinder play was the sheer amount of detail that we were expected to put on the table before we started having scenes. Bringing an element in for each point of our defining characteristics (plus a little more) was an awful lot to come up with and add to the mix. I think Simon commented that for a two player + GM game, this would mean 45 elements. On one hand, the stuff we came up with gave us a great feel for the deranged world our characters inhabited. On the other hand, things did slow down a little and it felt like a lot of what was coming out could easily be revealed and added in play.

As regards the scenes, there seemed to be little mechanical connection between the fiction that was being established and, well, the dice that might (or might not) be rolled. In the scene for Fresnel, it felt that we were establishing some interesting background and interactions, but not really driving towards anything. IN LC, it certainly feels that (especially in a game about fiction authors) the fiction should have concrete influence on the mechanics and vice versa. I remember we discussed the idea that the 'player characters' might also be characters in the fiction of other PCs and vice versa (if that makes any sense at all. I remember it made some kind of sense when we talked about it.)

I felt engaged with Fresnel, with Long and with the setting. As you point out, however, this engagement wasn't quite carried over when we hit the scenes. One thing that you could think about is the Shock-esque approach of having the character engaged in ordinary, every day activity. Then something hits them out of the blue to crew things up. Now, this could easily be brought in by the GM or another player, whose character is writing fiction about the active character. Hence, their lives take a turn mandated by the fiction being created by someone else. This is all a bit vague at the moment and I'm sure to have more concrete, workable ideas after further discussion.

Malcolm Craig
Contested Ground Studios

Part of the Indie Press Revolution

Simon C

Hi Steve,

You're right that I immediately connected with the characters and the setting of the game.  I just wanted to play this dude, wandering around, getting into trouble.  I think the problem is that on its own, that's not a game, it's just stuff happening. 

I think you're dead on in your assessment of what you need to go forward with your game.  Maybe I could try to answer your big list of questions, as a way of sparking ideas?

1. What is Left Coast about?

I get the feeling that it's kind of about a tension between human connections and unbridled creativity - it's about being an artist, and how much you can live inside your own creative world, and how much you have to live in the "real" world.  I feel like the characters are in a very "liminal" space, just on the edge of complete weirdness.

2. What do the characters do?

At the moment I feel like there's not much pressure on the characters to act at all.  That encourages the relaxed pace and "californian" atmosphere, but it also means the scenes kind of flail in play.  I'm not exactly sure what to do about that.  Maybe some kind of kicker? Something that spurs the characters to action?  I think the "meaningful relationships" idea is a good one.  I think about the idea of tension coming from other characters making demands on the main characters.  That could be cool.

3. Why do you have conflicts?

Sheesh, that's a hard question.  Maybe it would be cool to get all the other stuff together, and then just play, and see where it seems where we need resolution mechanics?

4. How do you make it easier to GM?

I think a scene framing mechanic could be cool.  I like what we did with other players choosing elements from the piece of paper to put into the scene.  That seemed like a good recipe for weirdness.

5. How can I make setting creation flow more smoothly?

When we were writing it up, I thought we each needed way too many elements.  It was draining and time-consuming coming up with all that stuff.  On the other hand, in play I thought the big sheet of crazy ideas was really useful.  It created a kind of mythology for the game that I really looked forward to exploring.  I especially wanted to discover connections between all the elements.

What if the elements were created in a more structured way, like, choose X items from the following list:

1: A family member with problems
2: A dangerous stranger
3: You, the player
4: An ex-lover
and so on, with maybe different lists for each arena.

6. Amalgamate nuttiness and alien?

Not sure on this front.  I suspect yes, in the end, unless you can articulate a clear reason to keep them apart.  You could come up with a pair of axis, like "Normal/Weird" and "Internal/External" and place Alien at Weird and External and nuttiness at Weird and Internal.  "Family" becomes Normal and Internal, and "Money" becomes Normal and External.  Those axis aren't quite right, but they're a possible way of explaining a difference, and they're also an interesting way of generating stats.

You know how in Dogs, each type of conflict takes a different pair of stats? My instinct is that that is better design that having a 1:1 correlation between stats and arenas.


Thanks for your comments, guys. Here are the quotes that have really stood out for me so far:

QuoteThere was no sense of significance or resonance to the events we were playing. ... The game felt hollow.

QuoteI just wanted to play this dude, wandering around, getting into trouble. That's not a game, it's just stuff happening.

Based on your comments, I have some ideas about stuff to try out with scene framing next time:

+ a rotating GM
+ the GM adopts the role of the author messing with the PC's life
+ the GM has a secret agenda they trying to get the PC to participate in
+ other players can introduce their NPCs into the scene (as long as they are given something they strongly want from the PC)

Those are just techniques, though. Most of your other comments I'm going to let brew for a little while. I'm certainly still uncertain about how to address the issues at the heart of how to make the game work - although, Simon, we've already talked off line about how 'creativity and the pressures real life puts upon it' could be a productive area to explore. I will definitely check out Californication.

Malcolm, I was wondering if you could expand on this a little:

QuoteAs regards the scenes, there seemed to be little mechanical connection between the fiction that was being established and, well, the dice that might (or might not) be rolled. In the scene for Fresnel, it felt that we were establishing some interesting background and interactions, but not really driving towards anything. IN LC, it certainly feels that (especially in a game about fiction authors) the fiction should have concrete influence on the mechanics and vice versa.

Also, let's take for granted that I'll adjust setting creation in some way that makes it less tiresome.

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs


I've had some further thoughts on what Left Coast could be about. At the moment, I keep thinking about how writers tend to not have enough time to create or get into a flow because their lives are filled with both good and bad things that distract them from writing - things that need to be dealt with and things that they enjoy. A lot of the ideas that we've talked about so far sit neatly in that space, ideas about the need to be creative and the pressures that stop you.

I think the idea at work here is 'Can you take control of your life?', and Left Coast could explore that by setting up conflicts and questions about who's in charge of your life. That's where I'll begin exploring what is this game about.

The first thing that comes out of that is that conflicts are about 'control'. Conflicts are about the PC trying to assert themselves and trying to not be buffetted around by the needs of other characters, or by the plots of the GM. As suggested, I would like to try out rotating the GM role around, and having the GM adopts the persona of an author writing a novel about the PC. As an author, they therefore has their own entertaining and dramatic designs and objectives for the PC's life.

I think there are two basic types of conflict. There are BANAL conflicts; these involve any element from any quadrant that is trying to distract you from writing. Banal conflicts use the Family rating. There are also AUTHORIAL conflicts, where the GM is trying to get the PC to follow the GM's outline for the plot. Authorial conflicts use the Nuttiness rating.*

* And I think that answers my question about amalgamating ratings, as well. I think 'Alien' is gone, absorbed into Nuttiness.

Scenes get set up using the elements I described above, and they get played out with no clear objective in mind. Through the course of play, you decide (through some social process yet to be determined) whether there's a conflict in the scene and what sort of conflict it is.

As part of this, I want to create a process for the GM/Author to create their plot (the 'Outline') for their novel about the PC. (Again, I've been inspired by Apocalypse World in this.) The Outline consists of objectives that they want the PC to enact; it's totally railroading, but the PC can squirm away from it if they win enough conflicts. The GM/Author designs this Outline using components from the PC's Nuttiness quadrant; the GM/Author also has some limited ownership over these Nutty components, and is able to set secret agendas and motivations for them that the PC isn't aware of.

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs

Simon C

Sounds like interesting stuff.  Mechanics wise, you could move towards just having a Trollbabe-esque "Number" that places you on a continuum between nutty and banal.  Trollbabe could be a good reference for a number of mechanics, actually.  It's a pity none of us have a copy of that game.

I think I like where this is going, but there's a little niggle in the back of my mind that I can't quite place.  I think it's something about how the authors (GMs) need to be present within the story, and subject to the same vagiaries as the characters.  I think one of the things that's interesting about VALIS is the sense that there's this great force outside of human control, and that both the characters and the author of the book are subject to that power.  I think Dick equated that force with God, but obviously I think that's pretty weak.  I like to think of it as a personification of the wild and alien forces of creativity, imagining your own creative process as an alien force outside of yourself.  That's why I liked the "Alien" descriptor, I think, because it made evident the sense of drawing from "Outside".  Also because it referenced the kind of complex alien mythology that I think Dick and other writers tapped into.  I like the idea that there are these alien forces acting on the story, and the authors (the GMs) are not immune to their power.  I think you can achieve that through the use of the table of game elements, random combinations, maybe Burroughs-esque cut-up techniques, oracles, portents, mysteries.


I think there are ramifications worthy of Godel, Escher, Bach that come out of this idea, Simon. Here's what your niggle makes me think of:

Imagine there are three player-characters in the game (PC#1, PC#2, and PC#3)

Each of these player-characters is also the GM for the player before them. For instance, PC#2 is GM#1 for PC#1.

When you GM, you do it in-character/ As GM, you imagine your character is writing a novel about the player you're the GM for.

The first ramification of this set-up is obvious: PC#2 is writing a novel about PC#1. That implies that PC#2 is successfully writing a novel without making a Money check (which is kind of a big deal in this game).

The second ramification is that I'd expect GM#1 to introduce their real-life problems (as PC#2) into the novel they're writing about PC#1. I'm thinking of mechanically enforcing this - using rules I'm currently mulling over for creating an 'Outline' of the novel.

... and of course PC#2 real-life problems are being caused - in part - by the actions of PC#3, who is writing a novel about their life.

(Simon, perhaps this addresses your concerns about the authors needing to be 'subject to the same vagaries as the characters'?)

So far, so good. I think that this structure sets up the 'feeling' of a Philip K Dick novel without tipping into parody or esoteric bullshit. I'm suspicious of doing anything more elaborate though: the Alien rating, introducing the players as characters into the game. I think that creating another layer of reality that encompasses all the fictional worlds of the player-characters risks making the game too clever. And it occurs to me that that extra layer of reality already exists, in the form of us (the real life players) creating the story of these characters.

Anyway, I'm still musing on all of this. I'll try anything out, but my objective is keep the focus on the humanity of the situation (real people, real problems, real craziness, and just a touch of meta-fiction).

A couple of further random thoughts:

+ Ron's concerns (in his initial feedback thread) about the lack of scene framing rules have only become really apparent to me after playing the game.

+ One of the things I really like about this idea of rotating GMs is how it encourages you to stay in character (as your author) even when you're taking over GM duties.

+ I've got a copy of Trollbabe (original flavour), and was also considering collapsing everything down into a single number / rating (which I was considering calling 'Control' - take that, Fruitful Void!)

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs


What if GMing attacks you money stat? And you have to be GMed for in order to get it back?
And what if the money stat is a broader "support" stat (needs a better name, dare it be control? grip? ooh I like the latter), that includes both paying bills and sorting out the repairs to your car?
And what if your power to "write" in those GM scenes is powered by nuttiness and family, but you only gain those at the expense of money/grip; by directly challenging the issues the GM is producing and dealing with them(at least in part)?
And what if the stats start lower and you add details every time you succeed and upgrade the stat(related to how you dealt with the problem)?

Those are way to many questions!


Josh, I like what you're saying but I think I need an example of how you see this working:

QuoteWhat if GMing attacks your Money stat? And you have to be GMed for in order to get it back?

At the moment, I'm interpreting it like this:

+ When you are the GM, your own character's Money stat decreases.
+ Presumably (based on your second sentence) the person you are the GM for has the opportunity to increase their own Money stat.

It'd be great (if you have time!) if you could go into a bit more detail about how you see this working. Like, how the players around the table interact with each other, and the sort of conflict that gets introduced. Thanks for any extra information you can give me!

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs


I was pretty inspired by the Dharma system in Raja Spiny Rat, where you are given a choice between "giving in" and compromising your dharma or increasing it's power by finding a way to accommodate it instead.

The idea I had was that in each scene it is tuned to go two of three ways, either money, family or weirdness. If you get stuck into your family/relationship issues and sort them out, but are late for an appointment with a publisher, you get increased family but no more money. If you are in the meeting with the publisher and you see out of the corner of your eye a man with silver eyes staring at you across the street mouthing things, but you ignore it, then perhaps you gain control/money. If you stare back and try to decipher his speech, then you gain nuttiness etc.

Every time the current protagonist wins something (I imagine that they could just loose sometimes too), the author for that scene looses some money/control, but perhaps if they can wrangle enough of a plot from it, matching their outline in some way, then they gain something else, some other stat for use when bargaining with publishers or even local shop owners "but I've got this great story coming, the money will be coming in any day now, I just have to finish it".

So the author scrabbles around trying to use weirdness and family issues to wrestle a plot out of the other players life, and he uses the same stats or his success in "writing" the last scene to push back.

Because of that choice hopefully people will start to write different kinds of stories, with everyone writing long chapters about overcoming background weirdness and maybe even finishing the book or everyone writing really short, thematically complicated, chaotic chapters about angels who are actually your father's kidneys, or a compromise or combination of the above.

Also people might cope with early episodes of crazyness in the hope that they will gain enough nuttiness to push through a plot in their turns as author, getting them enough "story" to win back their depleted control. Other people might try to hold up their control levels because they think they can make whatever the other person does fit their plot, making their otherwise normal life full of background weirdness.

As you've probably noticed I've shifted my idea towards 4 stats; money, story, family and nuttiness, with money just acting as a timer type thing, partially because the story stat could link the outlines to actually getting money, which feels right as a game about struggling writers, and also because it allows people who get behind in stats to come back a bit by working out what the other player will want to do and allowing for it in their outline.

Perhaps the outline (complicated by the traits you pick up as you increase the stats) + the requirement to allow two possible avenues in every scene would provide that framing you were looking for.


Josh, I like how you're articulating this. It's given me a lot of ideas.

I particularly like the idea that if the player character wins, then their Author loses something. Perhaps it's 'Money', perhaps it's 'Control'. Either way, it's because the novel isn't going how the Author wants. I can easily see how to integrate that into the existing conflict system.

If the Author loses, they might also be forced to eliminate something from their Outline or from the setting's relationship-map. Perhaps we can interpret that as the Author being forced to rewrite the plot of their novel because their character isn't doing what they want.

However, if the Author wins a conflict, they can spend victories to introduce new characters from their Outline onto the relationship map, or win the right to frame the character's next scene (moving the plot of their Outline along). I can see lots of potential here.

The thing I like most about these ideas for scene framing is that they recapture the sense of fun I felt when I was working on the original draft of Left Coast. They feel very much like they could naturally fit into the game.

The thing I'm wariest about (as I mentioned above) is making sure that there is at least some emotional reality in the situation. For instance, I think that NPCs in the player's Family quadrant should maybe be immune to being messed with by the Author. I think that might give Left Coast an anchor, which I think it really needs.

So, the rules I need to write now:

+ How to design an Outline
+ Adding motivations for NPs (what do they want from the character?)
+ scene framing
+ introducing and running conflicts
+ the consequences of conflicts

Thanks for all the help. I'm looking forward to trying out this new version of scene framing, and seeing whether it makes the game (a) more fun, and (b) more 'about' something that I'm interested in.


Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs


It occurs to me that the author's "outline" could be very similar to an old school adventure path, in that they are trying to draw the other player into their magical journey/unnerving chain of events, when the protragonist is just trying to get some milk from the shops or something!

So like adventure paths often have tools in them to try to pull the characters onto the prescribed path, the author could try to get from A to D, even if B and C become a long train of scenes instead. Then the author could get rewarded specifically for those scenes that play out like they planned. I quite like the idea of allowing them to write out loads of scenes for the outline, providing all outline scenes must relate to at least one of their issues, and maybe within a time limit? Although this is a game about writing I don't want it to just be about scribbling things for half an hour while everyone waits! The main reason I like a 5+ scene outline is that it blatantly won't play out that way, so any scenes that are rendered impossible/you loose on have to be crossed out, leading to the outline page looking really haphazard and chaotic, like a representation of the character's writing process.

Hmm, perhaps they can only use each issue once when creating an outline for a turn; so that people with more issues can try for more scenes, although they will likely cross many of those out, and it would act as a tactical incentive to allow more semi-normal scenes; to save on themes/issues.

Actually, I don't like that as much as the time limit, because it weakens the possibility of focusing on control more than weirdness. It also occurs to me that there is a time limit, you'd have to get your outline done by the time your turn came around.

On the relationship map I have to say I love the idea of all the player characters sharing the same relationship map, but always more than 2 links away; if only they weren't caught in this weird heirachical loop they could form a writers club!

Perhaps the things within one link of a player character/in their specific "family quadrant" (whatever that is) cannot be linked directly to any new character or weirdness (if you add Valis or JHVH-1 to the relationship map) unless they are directly introduced somehow by the player character, and until then they won't appear in scenes simultaneously. (Am I right that Californians are friendly when introduced but otherwise live in bubbles? If so that could be a pretty amusing way to protect family characters!)

Beyond that, I'm not sure you should put too much of a restriction on using the family characters; allowing the author to play out the family members of the player character would allow you to underline those very emotional realities you are concerned about. The trick is likely to be making the characters well fleshed out, npc motivations, as you observe.

How do you currently create the setting elements related to the family stat? I imagined it as phrasing them in terms of their effect on the character; as the origin/an example of their issues. If this is so then you could give the character "their own side" to the story, why they have that relationship to the player character, in terms of their own motivations. From there it would mean you had three cues for how to play out a character as an author; the motivation they have that causes their classic relationship with the PC, their purpose in terms of the scene and the authors own family issues that he is sticking in, and whatever details you have created between you when first brainstorming that character. I get the impression the last one is the bit that the game already does very well, and the first two would be there to put that into motion.